Reclaiming the Muslim Narrative
The Muslim Ummah today faces the onslaught of Islamophobia perpetuated by Western media. At the same time, terror, famine, and poverty rip through several war-torn Muslim countries. To put the icing on top of this disastrous cake, factionalism and corruption within Muslim states have weakened the Ummah from within. But, how did we become so stigmatised?
The Muslim youth are desperate to be deemed as acceptable by societal standards that they would rather seek conformity than to embody their Muslim identity. The occurrence of a Muslim character on a Netflix show would have them celebrating for finally getting some representation. But, what kind of representation are we settling for? Are we condoning the representation of Islam that impedes societal progression. One that curtails the freedom of expression, or one that simply suppress the adolescents desire to live their lives?
It seems that that is the narrative of every other Muslim character who eventually renounces their Muslim identity so that they would not be seen as the anomaly.
Now, before we start pointing fingers and playing the blame game for this horrible caricature of Muslims, let us pause and look within. Until when will we measure our worth against Western standards? Until when will we have to water down our faith just to not come off as too religious? Until when do we let others define the Muslim narrative?
Perhaps we should look beyond our current state and look back at a point in time where Muslims were the poignant figures of society - highly revered for their scientific, mathematical, astronomical, linguistic, artistic prowess that defined The Golden Age of Islam.
The Golden Age of Islam
The Golden Age of Islam is historically known as a time in Islamic history from the 8th to the 13th century. This period is distinguished by the numerous developments in science, economy and culture that brought Islamic Civilization to its peak.
Let us take a look at some of these illustrious individuals and their contributions towards shaping an unforgettable part of Islamic history so that we can realise how the Muslim identity is ultimately ours to redefine.
Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi
Everyone at some point in their educational journey has been taught Algebra. Did you know that this ubiquitous branch of Mathematics was developed by a Persian Scientist? Indeed, the person responsible for developing Algebra is Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. The term "Algebra" has been derived from his monumental text, Kitab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqabala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing). He was also responsible for spreading the use of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system throughout the Middle East and Europe.
Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriyya
Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriyya was a daughter of a rich merchant who settled down in Fez, Morocco. Fatima was nicknamed the "mother of boys" due to her charitable nature. She and her sister Maryam were well-educated and were taught Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) and Hadith. After she inherited a large amount of money at the time of her father's and her husband's death, she decided to use it to build a mosque. This would be the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque which later also became an institute of learning. According to UNESCO, the University of al-Qarawiyyin is considered the oldest university in the world that is still in operation. Let us take a moment to appreciate the fact that it was a Muslim woman who laid the seed and concept of a university education, which has become the modus operandi of institutes of higher learning today.
Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā: in short Ibn Sina, was a Muslim physician and was regarded as the most famous and influential philosopher-scientists in The Golden Age of Islam. He authored the Kitāb al-shifāʾ (Book of the Cure), an encyclopaedia covering various topics about philosophy and science. Ibn Sina is also well-known for his Al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (The Canon of Medicine), which is considered as one of the most prominent historical books in medicine.
Abbas ibn Firnas
The Wright brothers have become ubiquitously known as the inventors of the first aircraft with a motorised engine. However, the 9th century engineer, Abbas Ibn Firnas, is considered to be the first person to achieve flight by combining silk, wood, and real feathers to construct a pair of wings. His flying machine diagrams later became a fundamental part of aviation engineering in the late 20th century. Ibn Firnas’ deep fascination with science and technology led him to also invent water-powered clocks. He was also known to have experimented with sand and quartz crystals which eventually created transparent glass.
Hasan ibn al-Haytham
Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham, in short, Hasan ibn al-Haytham was a mathematician, astronomer, and physicist who made notable contributions to the principles of optics and the usage of scientific experiments in his works. Ibn al-Haytham is most known for his work entitled Kitāb al-manāẓir (“Optics”). His book contains the correct mechanism of vision whereby the eyes receive light rays reflected from objects. He was also the first to aptly demonstrate that vision occurs in the brain, rather than in the eyes.
To explore the concept of light and vision, Ibn al-Haytham created a dark chamber called “Albeit Almuzlim,” which is translated into Latin as “camera obscura”. This device forms the basis of photography. He noticed that light coming through a tiny hole travelled in straight lines and formed an image onto the opposite wall.
Through this, Ibn al-Haytham concluded that vision is accomplished by rays coming from external luminous sources and entering the eye, rather than through rays emitted from the eye as was commonly believed. Ibn al-Haytham's experimentation made him a pioneer in optical sciences and his findings have cast light into our modern world.
Contemporary Muslim Innovators
The Golden Age of Islam was the era when Muslims were at the pinnacle of innovation in every field imaginable. However, let us not forget the contemporary Muslim innovators who are pushing the frontiers in their respective fields today.
Dr Özlem Türeci & Dr Uğur Şahin
Dr Özlem Türeci and Dr Uğur Şahin are the founders of the German Biotechnology company BioNTech. This husband-and-wife duo's research work focused primarily on cancer treatments, but this was before COVID-19 struck. At the onset of the pandemic, BioNTech partnered with Pfizer to produce a vaccine using BioNTech's messenger RNA technology which had a 90% effectiveness rate. This made Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine to be one of the first approved COVID-19 vaccines in the world. What is remarkable is that they have managed to develop and distribute a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 in less than a quarter of the time it took to produce the same for the mumps vaccine—the previous record holder. This is truly a groundbreaking achievement for the international healthcare research community.
Professor Jackie Ying
Professor Jackie Ying is an American nanotechnology scientist and the founding executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology Singapore (IBN) at A*STAR. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on nanostructured materials and systems for catalytic and biomedical applications. In 2014, she was admitted into the Singapore Women's Hall of Fame for her notable contributions in her field of study. In 2021, she was elected as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. Throughout her research career, she has been awarded several accolades such as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Journal of Drug Targeting.
Dr Teepu Siddique
Dr Teepu Siddique is a Pakistani American neurologist who is best known for his groundbreaking discoveries on the genetic and molecular abnormalities surrounding the deadly neurodegenerative disorder amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; or Lou Gehrig disease) which affects as many as 30,000 adults in the United States. This discovery paved the way for better understanding and development of a treatment for this disease which was previously shrouded in mystery for the medical community.
Dr Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil
Dr Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil is a Turkish astrophysicist and astronomer who investigates the smallest and faintest galaxies in the universe, and how dark matter has shaped them. She went on to discover a new type of extremely rare galaxy while working on her PhD at the University of Minnesota. This newfound galaxy with a peculiar double-ringed circular structure is now commonly referred to as Burçin's Galaxy. Her finding has provided the first description of a double-ringed elliptical galaxy, thereby introducing new challenges for our understanding of galaxy formation and evolution.
Ihsaan: The Secret to Success
Despite the downplaying by traditional Western media outlets and the absence of such Muslim Innovators in our textbooks, Muslims have always served an integral part of society through their contributions - scientific or otherwise. And perhaps we can dig deeper and ponder what could be the reason behind this?
Perhaps the secret behind their success is rooted in their Muslim identity. The advent of Islam catalyzed mankind’s improvement in every facet of our lives as Ihsan is engraved into our core values. This is best encapsulated in the following verse:
وَأَنفِقُوا۟ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ وَلَا تُلْقُوا۟ بِأَيْدِيكُمْ إِلَى ٱلتَّهْلُكَةِ ۛ وَأَحْسِنُوٓا۟ ۛ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُحْسِنِينَ
Spend in the cause of Allah and do not let your own hands throw you into destruction ˹by withholding˺. And do good (Ihsan), for Allah certainly loves the good-doers (doers of Ihsan) (Al-Qur’an, 2:195)
You may be wondering: how does this translate into our daily lives? It means that every day, we are given a chance to convert our mundane daily tasks into opportunities to rake in countless rewards once we set our intentions right to please Allah (swt).
So, the next time you’re trying to stifle a yawn in a boring lecture, remember the virtue of Ihsan and continue to press on. Or when your mother asks you to help out in the household chores, pause and recognise that this is a golden opportunity to show Ihsan and seize the reward of it. Let this verse be a source of motivation for us to give nothing short of the best in all that we do - for the sake of pleasing Allah (swt).
By bringing Ihsan into our lives, it leaves no room for discrimination of caste, creed, or religion. Ihsan is not limited only to humans but should be practised with all the creations of Allah (swt). Ihsan is a labour of love, not just a duty. This can result only from being mindful of Allah in all our actions which would also allow us to cultivate our love for Him. In essence, Ihsan is the superlative form of belief.
Although not every one of us can become the next Nobel Prize-winner, we all have our own capabilities that we can hone and use for His sake. So let us add meaning to our existence in this life and strive for excellence in all that we pursue - as a testament of our Islamic values of Ihsan and to ultimately reclaim our Muslim narrative.